Simon Liu

 

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CL4P-TP by Simon Liu

Simon Liu is a prolific builder and one of the most recognisable faces on the LEGO convention scene, displaying regularly across Canada and North America. Two years ago I had the opportunity to discuss the ethos of science fiction building, what makes the LEGO community unique and the challenges of collaborative building.

David Alexander Smith: All builders’ work is hard to define, and your work especially, with its coverage of so many of styles and themes.  Saying that space builds seem to be something you routinely come back to.  What is it that makes space building so appealing?

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FE Junterr by Simon Liu

Simon Liu: The quick answer: because I’m good at it… The long answer, because that’s what I grew up with, watching sci-fi films and TV shows, reading science fiction, and playing space themed video games. In short I love Sci-fi, and when I build I tend to want to build things I’m most familiar with – I just enjoy building it, and I think that enjoyment is reflected in the final product.

Thinking back that enjoyment comes in part from being a kid, building robots and spaceships that I would fly around the house. At the time my collection, and abilities were limited. Now the size of my collection is no longer an issue I can try and build what I always wanted to … my ability on the other hand, well I’m still working on that one.‎

But perhaps there is an even longer answer: when I sit down to build, I like to construct what comes to mind. I have a fairly large collection, but it’s finite, and while I can order more bricks it takes time and breaks my creative flow. The space and sci-fi ‎creations I make are usually figments of my imagination, which allow me to work in a more intuitive way.

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Locust by Simon Liu

DAS: That’s interesting, I recently interviewed the Australian builder Karf Oohlu, and he said something very similar about the need to allow inspiration to take hold through pieces. Perhaps sci-fi building fits well with this creative approach?

SL: Perhaps, although I do take heavy inspiration from other sources, including builders I look up to, but ultimately everything gets filtered through my brain and personal inventiveness. In other words there are no ‘right ways’ to build I suppose, if you don’t have a specific piece, then you just use another.  And sci-fi building does seem to support this approach.

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Point Defense Fighter by Simon Liu

DAS: Its true, sci-fi, although often soaked in the aesthetics of technology and pragmatics, is actually more about the look of something rather than its real function. Maybe this provides the freedom to see pretty much any LEGO piece as part of a spaceship?

SL: Well, sometimes there are odd piece choices that I put into builds, and that’s usually because I don’t have a part. This works well for Sci-Fi builds, as the genre lends itself to maximum creative freedom. If I were building a car that leeway isn’t there.

This leads to a recurring joke I am fond of making: ‘any part, is a spaceship part’ – it all depends on how it’s used. Building Sci-Fi is really conducive to using parts in unintended ways to achieve your build. One of my favourite Sci-Fi elements is the 1×2 Masonry Brick, which is definitely intended for town and castle, but in the right orientation it creates excellent textures.

DAS: Expanding on this idea of ways of building, I’ve speculated in one of my other articles that LEGO encourages us as builders to explore the limits of design conventions.  I see this in many of your works, for example the revamps of Classic Space or Ice Planet conventions.

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ip s1 by Simon Liu

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ip s2 by Simon Liu

SL: In the case of some conventions, like Ice Planet, it’s obvious; it’s the colour scheme. Whereas for others like Vic Vipers‎ (the two pronged spaceship), the design convention can be shown through a diagram. I think that many of the space building contests in the community have an innate ability to come up with a clear and flexible set of conventions. This allows for a cohesive and recognisable set of builds, but also allows individuals to challenge and bend the conventional norms.

For me, once you understand the boundaries that are expected a convention becomes ‎fairly straightforward to build in. The trouble with some design conventions is that they’re unclear or too broad, resulting in ill-informed creations.

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UCS Benny by Simon Liu

DAS: This naturally brings up a question about the relationship between science fiction themes and the games builders play in the LEGO community, I’m thinking of course of the likes of Febrovery (the month of lunar rover building) and the yearly giant space building event SHIPtember (SHIP being an acronym for seriously huge investment in parts) that you’re well known for creating and running.

SL: I think during these themed months and contests people see this as an opportunity to apply the design convention from their favourite sources (sci-fi, video games or otherwise) and apply it to the convention established by the contest.

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FE Junterr (Deep Space Carrier) by Simon Liu

The most obvious example is SHIPtember. Many people, including myself, built Homeworld (the real time strategy video game), or Homeworld inspired SHIPs this year. Another common example, which I’m also guilty of, is applying the classic space colours used in the sets of the late 70s and early 80s on other conventions. The trans yellow-blue-grey colour scheme accented with yellow and black bumblebee stripes is extremely recognisable in the community and as a result can be easily applied to pretty much any of the established conventions. Try it!

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Moonbase 3 by Simon Liu

DAS: Yes I love pushing the classic space convention myself. But, have you ever pushed a convention or design principle so far that it became ridiculous?  For example your Si-Fighter I would think comes directly from the process of pushing an S-shape to an extreme.

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Si-Figher by Simon Liu

SL: I think it would depend on what you define as ridiculous … I do tend to borderline on the silly …  I think I have a predisposition to replace our beloved mini-figures with various animals, from frogs, to teddy bears and the like. There’s just something incredibly fun about the juxtaposition of my usual sci-fi builds with the addition of cute animals.

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Clux Flapacitor by Simon Liu

Though I think I may have inadvertently ruined a convention by redefining it for my own purposes.  Before I came along, SHIPs had a pretty specific meaning: 100 studs long spacecraft, almost always mini-figure scale, with interiors. But when I created SHIPtember, I added a new constraint to the convention – having builders start and finish in a month. As a result this led to a gradual decline perhaps even erosion of the some of the old conventions to meet the new. Though hopefully I can try to push the needle back towards mini-figure based SHIPs next year.

DAS: As you’ve already mentioned in the case of Homeworld, you often build models inspired by video games, Borderlands and Starcraft lately.  Why is this subject matter appealing to you?

SL: What’s interesting is that the previous generation of LEGO fans took inspiration from books and movies, whereas for the newer generation it has become more about the video games they play.

It’s funny that you would think that I’m associated with this shift towards video game representation, as I’ve generally stayed away from building and recreating from pop culture, be it video games, or movies. It’s not that it’s not fun, but I generally like exploring my own little worlds, not to mention there are a lot of builders out there that are phenomenal at rebuilding from pop culture.

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USS Sulaco by Simon Liu

But there are a few games that I feel particularly passionate about, Starcraft and more recently Borderlands. As for why they’re good subjects, perhaps for me its because there are a lot of grey dropships in these themes which I like building, which are also in films like Aliens and Avatar that I grew up watching. And I think my builds tend to reflect a lot of that space-marine ‎vibe you find in these properties.

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Master Chief by Simon Liu

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Dropship by Simon Liu

However I don’t set out to recreate certain popular cultural forms because they are popular or would work well. I think of it as less, ‘what would look good in LEGO’ and more ‘what do I want to build’. But I do admit that the audience and reception is different when you tackle builds based on video games, or other pop culture icons. There’s a resonance your audience and you share, a bond that comes from playing the game or of watching a film.

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Calvin and Hobbes by Simon Liu

DAS: How do you feel about LEGO moving into the creation of sets around video game IPs? Obviously there has been Minecraft, and soon we’ll have Angry Birds. Is this a different cultural moment to say the collaboration in the late 90s with Star Wars?

SL: The response to video game IPs in LEGO really depends on your point of view. For many builders, it really doesn’t matter where the IP is from, the question is what’s in the box? Are the pieces useful and interesting? Is the cost of the set reasonable relative to non-licensed sets? For causal LEGO fans, it will depend on the inclusiveness of the LEGO fans to the video game fans.

For me, I like it. The sets themselves are not overly important, but I tend to look within to see the inventory of each set, and the building possibilities that can arise. But I really do like the fact that LEGO has been producing popular IPs. It allows me to give the gift of LEGO to a whole new audience that wouldn’t necessarily be that interested in a standard set. Over the past few years I must have bought everyone I know some sort of Ideas set for a birthday or other event.

I also believe that for the younger generation, who might be entering their dark ages, having that tie-in with games that they play may ultimately help prolong, if not solidify a life long LEGO passion.

DAS: You are also known as a key figure in the LEGO community.  What makes the LEGO community special and potentially different from other communities, both online and in real life?

SL: We all like LEGO, and it doesn’t matter who you are in the community, from the most famous of builders, to the newest teenage builder, or the set collector, we all share a common love. And I’ve noticed that especially in the builder community, we share a very similar mentality towards the brick and the joy of building, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing this – and it’s independent of social or economical background. I’ve been extremely lucky to go to the four largest conventions across the United States and Canada, and it’s always the same, there’ll be a group of builders there that you can spend an entire weekend with.

And then there’s always that bag or bin of loose bricks, and one of the great joys is just sitting down and building. I think this ability to want to build together is the best way to describe our community. Many other hobbies or groups seems to be a little individualistic and self-centred, whereas this hobby as a whole may at first glance seem to be a fairly solo endeavour, as a community it is different, we play well together, and embrace each other’s abilities, ideas and ultimately each other.  Very few communities out there would so willing to share with everyone their so-called tricks of the trade, and to actively encourage newer builders, and that’s pretty cool.

DAS: Is there something about the universal language of LEGO that allows us to understand each other better than other more culturally embedded activities?

SL: I’ve had the pleasure of sitting down and building with people from around the world, from the United States, Europe, New Zealand, Australia, and it’s the same around the world. The stud goes into the anti-stud. It doesn’t matter what language you speak.

But even within local areas, it’s fascinating to see the actual lexicon of LEGO change. Have you ever asked someone what a 4070 brick is called? Depending on who you ask it’s an ‘Erling’ or a ‘headlight’ or a ‘washer’ or even a ‘half plate recessed SNOT brick’.

But even with the ultimate equaliser that is the standard LEGO brick, the resulting builds are unsurprisingly geographically diverse. If you look around the different areas of the world, there seem to be some trends that pop up in certain locales. It doesn’t mean that everyone from a given area or a certain group build the same way, but there tends to be a consolidation of styles, which LEGO users as an international community then see come together. That’s amazing.

DAS: LEGO building has a wonderful way of inspiring collaboration.  For instance I love the Protego Maxima build for the Symphony of Construction project you were part of.  Could you tell me a little bit about that project, and how successful you felt it was?

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Protego Maxima by Simon Liu

SL: I almost think collaboration is my favourite part of the hobby. There’s just something wonderful about the idea of doing more as a group than you can individually, and I’ve made lasting friendships, and possibly some enemies by working on a variety of collaborations.

Symphony of Construction was the brainchild of Paul Vermeesch and Ian Spacek, two incredibly talented builders and composers (though I will take credit for coming up with the name!). The idea was simple: take the traditional LEGO ‘telephone game’ (where a builder would build a model, give it to the next builder, who would then build a new model based on the one they received). But instead of a standard cycle of building one thing and passing it on to the next, they literally added a musical interlude. A builder would not base their build on the previous build, but on a piece of music, which in turn, is based on the previous build. I must have listened to my score (written by Christopher Baldacci) a hundred times, even spending an entire work day playing it on an endless loop to try to get a feel for the music.

Unfortunately I don’t think it was nearly as successful from an audience perspective as I would have hoped; as to properly follow it, you would have to look at the build, listen to music (or watch a video), which may have exceeded people’s attention span. But from a participant’s view, it was most definitely one of the more fun ‘games’ I’ve been a party to.

DAS: With the aspiration of collaboration, what would you like to see the community try? Is there something that could potentially be said in a collaborative build that a solo builder could never achieve?

SL: Whenever you collaborate I feel you’re really forcing people from different perspectives to work towards a uniform whole.   The more cohesive the intended outcome the more you truly collaborate. It’s easy to create a standard and everyone build their section, but does that make a good collaboration?

It depends I think on the goal of the collaboration. Collaborations with standard conventions are a fantastic mechanism for getting people building and involved. Especially for new comers who have never participated before or maybe even attended a convention.

Whereas for some groups their goal is to create the most amazing creation possible. This usually involves complex standards, both in terms of structural as well as aesthetic cohesiveness. These collaboration giants, such as BrickTimeTeam, BrickToThePast, BroLUG, KeithLUG and VirtualLUG are the next level of collaboration where the creation is more than a sum of their whole. The combined might and effort that goes into these monster collaborations adds an extra quotient, an amazing multiplier that ends in utterly jaw dropping results.

While I’m thrilled to keep seeing new amazing collaborative builds form these collaborations, I would love to see how some of them would apply their group’s talents to different genres. Sometimes the most surprising builds comes from the least likely sources, there’s something to be said about taking on a new subject with fresh eyes and new perspective. And there is always something new to see at every convention.

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Operation Olive Branch by Simon Liu

This interview first appeared in Bricks Culture 4.

To see more of Simon Liu’s amazing creations visit his Flickr stream here.

 

 

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Crimso Geiger’s Infinite Space

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Mysterion Mothership Interior

Crimso Geiger has been making space creations since 2006. Renowned for his seemingly endless stream of innovative and unusual creations in the Classic Space style, as well as being the founder of Febrovery – the month long space rover building event – there was no one better for me to discuss the art of science fiction LEGO building with.

David Alexander Smith You’ve been making amazing space models for several years now, but what initially inspired you to return to building as an adult?

Crimso Geiger Actually I’ve never ceased building since my childhood. In fact I don’t think I’ve really had what you might term a ‘Dark Age’. However what really got me back into more ‘serious building’ was my (late) discovery of the web, around 2003-2004. At first it was mainly a nostalgia trip on Lugnet, researching all the LEGO sets that had inspired my dreams as a child. Then around 2006 I discovered MOCpages, the LEGO fan-sharing site, and got a sense of what the community was making. At the time my true artistic hobby was abstract drawing, but very soon I felt the need to go back to LEGO building, and focus my creative energy there.

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Base Interior (7) – The creation that got Crimso noticed by the community.

DAS Your work is synonymous with the LEGO Group’s space themes from the late 70s to the late 90s.  What makes the design of these sets so special to you, rather than say the Star Wars range, which seems to have drawn so many fans back into the hobby?

CG For me the true spirit of LEGO building can be traced back to the designers of the Classic Space era: it shines through in their models. They built some truly unique spaceships, bases, etc, that didn’t come from a movie; and in design terms were really inspiring. As a child I felt that even the coolest science fiction movies had their flaws, whereas the unique appeal of the LEGO space ranges, and the aspect I loved, was the way you could tell your own stories through the sets.

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Classic Space Cargo

I have a very complicated love/hate relationship to the Star Wars franchise’s association with the LEGO fan community. In my opinion there are far too many fan creations focused on this universe. Science fiction is too cool and too wide to be reduced to a single universe, especially one that has become entrenched in the financial needs of marketing a brand. For me, a set like the Alien Moon Walker (6940) will always be more charming in its design than say an AT-AT Walker.

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Alien Moon Walker

Compared to today’s sets, classic space sets achieve efficient design with only a few bricks, for example in the mythical Moon Buggy (886) or the Mobile Lab (6901). Actually I think that my style of building is far removed from the Classic Space style in most cases, even if it remains as a guide for a certain design ‘authenticity’: my creations are Classic Space in spirit rather than Classic Space to the letter. I also love the modularity of the bigger sets and the simple yet efficient colour schemes they used.

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Silver Machine (4)

DAS What do you think makes a great science fiction model?

CG This is such a wide question! The first thing that comes to my mind would be personality. I want to see the individuality of the creator’s ideas in the model. Influences are fine, but it needs to be enlightened by something that only belongs to them. That’s why I don’t really care about replicas of existing science fiction themes from movies, although these often demonstrate awesome technical skills.

If we are talking about LEGO science fiction builds, then I admit I prefer studless models, although creations with loads of studs work in some contexts. I similarly love builders who are not afraid of bright colors. Also, I love strange shaping, like many innovative space builders do, but overall I’m more sensitive to nice texturing in a work. I’m more about patterns and part repetitions, and not necessarily ‘traditional’ greebles that are sometimes indistinguishable and even indigestible.

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Mazone Refuelling Vehicle (4)

DAS Obviously you see a strong design process at work in space building, but can science fiction LEGO be art and if it can what makes it distinct from other genres.

CG I don’t feel my LEGO work is in anyway different to my other artistic output: I draw and make electronic music. It’s a way for me to express who I am. More seriously, have you got twenty pages to give me, as that is what I need to formulate a serious answer. To be brief, I just see my work as a three dimensional version of the work of Chris Foss and other science fiction painters, and to the best of my knowledge they are considered as artists.

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Ghost Tiger (Crimso Remix)

DAS Your builds are full of imagination; you seem to be able to endlessly come up with new themes that the LEGO group might have devised back in the 80s and 90s – Biotron being my personal favorite.  How do you come up with these alternative ranges, and do you have any that are special to you?

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Biotron THC-500 Ambassador (4)

CG Each of those personal themes has its own particular story. I think they express various aspect of my personality, and all of them in this respect, are close to my heart. More generally I love the idea of themes for my builds, as it gives me guidelines for each creation. But it is also interesting for me to not be too precise in observing those guidelines, to remain free.

Most of my themes don’t have an official back story, rather they evolve in my mind every so often. For example, my Zorg Empire creations began as a standard evil force, but over the years I added more contrasted shades to this theme. On the other hand, Biotron are probably the most obvious ‘good guys’ in my universe, but they also have a more ambiguous ‘hidden message’, which might not necessarily be perceived by the viewer. It is important to me that these messages remain ambiguous and unexplained.

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Bronto-Zorg

DAS The other trend your work demonstrates is an ability to build multiple creations from a constrained theme; for instance seven or eight Space Police models in a row.  What is the reasoning behind this and how useful a creative strategy is it?

CG It’s probably linked to my childhood. I have a precise memory of discovering the whole Futuron range in the 1987 LEGO catalogue. I was ten at the time, and I spent the whole day looking at this fascinating new range. Now as an adult I get great pleasure in going back to my childhood and creating a whole range that emulates the childhood wonderment I felt back then.

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In Flight

On a more prosaic note, it’s simpler to keep available the parts in the same colors for a precise theme, rather than to switch between all the various colours.  It certainly makes sorting easier! That said, I don’t necessarily feel the need to make series of creations: on the contrary, I’m interested in a wide and various range of interpretations on an original theme.

DAS Febrovery (the month long space Rover event) was your brainchild.  How did it come about, what was the reasoning behind it, and why do you think it continues to be so popular?

CG To be perfectly honest, the whole thing happened as a kind of accident. I’d uploaded some classic space style rovers on Flickr, saying humorously in the description, “I could build these all day long”. People seemed amused by the idea and someone proposed it could be a theme for a month long challenge, another that a cool name for it would be FebRovery… So from that simple beginning it became a collective effort [lol].

That said, I think I’ve provided the true impulse for the process, through the numerous creations I’ve made for that event over the years. I also put the emphasis on fun, where other month long building challenges choose a more serious tone. The main point was not to create a contest; more a kind of party, with a theme that didn’t require too much time or parts to produce cool creations. I also avoided too precise guidelines, in order to give builders more freedom.

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CSR Set 607  – A reaction against the “serious spirit”in a part of the LEGO community

I really hope that this month long challenge will remain popular in years to come! It’s probably this month that gives me the most fun and pleasure; sharing my models with such a creative and friendly community.

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Snail Rover – final build Febrovery 2015

DAS Febrovery is indeed a fan favorite in the LEGO building community, which draws people together in a collective project.  How important is community building to the LEGO building experience for you?

CG I’ve always felt very isolated in my other hobbies (drawing, electronic music, etc.) so these collective projects in the Lego community have been a kind of revelation for me. I would define myself as a rather independent person, especially when it comes to art, but I’ve learned how pleasant it is to work in a collective challenge, thanks to the awesomely nice Lego community. I’m a big fan of NoVVember (the Vic Viper spaceship event) in particular. With some French spacer friends, I’ve done the RMX challenge this year and that was amazing. RMX is a version of the star fighter telephone game, one builder uploads a star fighter, and the participants have to build a similar star fighters, respecting the shape and colour scheme, but in their own individual style.

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RMX Starfighter Challenge

In general, I really love this kind of challenge, if – and only if – it’s not a real contest. I really don’t like the ego wars contests can create. That said, some true contest can be very cool, especially the ones on MOCpages, where, for some reason the proceedings rarely turn into a dogfight.

DAS I’ve noticed that you tend to shy away from large builds in favour of many smaller pieces.  What makes you want to work in this way?  Arguably the fans that commit hours to monumental works gain far more attention in the LEGO media.

CG The most important thing for me when building, is to have fun. Big projects often need you to work seriously on structural issues, and are sometime very hard to take good photos of. So it’s not really fun, at least for me.

I’ve got lots of ideas, and not that much patience, so small or average-sized creations suit my personality better than long-term behemoth projects. Also, I’m sure that true men of taste can appreciate smaller builds! Kaarf Oohlu is to my eyes, (and to the eyes of a very large portion of the community) a fantastic builder, very prolific and creative; and even his biggest creations are fairly small. But I don’t want to put limitations to my work, and I might build bigger creations in the future.

DAS Where do you see your building going next?  Are there any projects or plans you are keen to tackle in the future?

CG I would love to make more dioramas for my own themes, or for my beloved old classic space themes. However, it would not be a big departure from my usual style. I’m thinking about a more radical break in my style: I would love to create completely abstract creations, but I really need to think about it… nothing is  written at this point. I feel that abstraction is too uncommon in current LEGO building. My sci-fi style sometimes borders on a certain degree of abstraction, and as an ex-abstract painter and drawer, I feel that I may have a suitable pedigree to go into these little unexplored territories. I’ve got a strong will to go that way. Only time will tell!

You can find more of Crimso Geiger’s amazing creations on his Flickr page.

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Monochrome Interior #1

 

Space Dinosaurs

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Space Brachi0saurus

When I posted my first Space LEGO dinosaur on Flickr back in August 2015 I never expected the response it received. There was something about a stegosaurus built in the style of LEGO’s Classic Space sets that chimed with the community. Even before the popular LEGO websites picked up on the model, comments and likes were multiplying faster than I could keep track of. People I’d never spoken to before were asking if I could put the build on LEGO Ideas; they wanted to vote for it to become an official set! I was flattered, and a little confused; out of the many creations I’d posted online what made this one so special?

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Space0saurus

It wasn’t until I took three of the dinosaurs to Brick, the huge LEGO show in London, that I started to better understand things.   I’d like to say that it was the sophisticated building techniques I used that made it popular, but that would be a lie. Although competently made there were hundreds of better built LEGO marvels at the exhibition. Even the aesthetic design, whilst polished, borrowed heavily from familiar tropes and other recognisable franchises. What made them a hit was the simple fact that dinosaurs are pretty cool. Mix this with space age robotics and a splash of nostalgia and the wining formula was complete.

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Space0saurus (modular function)

A gaggle of children, normally under the age of ten would stop point, coo and exclaim: “awwwesome… look, space dinosaurs.” Standing behind them a dad who looked suspiciously like me nodded in agreement, and would sagely add: “look at those pieces, that’s the sort of LEGO set I remember.” Some would also throw in words like Zoids, Dinobots or Robotix, and we’d exchange further knowing looks.

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Space Brachi0saurus (rocket launcher)

Reflecting on the events of the show I dug a little deeper into what I build and why? There are definitely two sides to what I do as a LEGO builder. One is linked to the part of me who went to Art College and now works for a university, teaching art theory from time to time. His creations reference Ancient Greek art and folk traditions such as needlecraft and paper cuts. The other has unfinished business with the important task of a ten year-old who is still trying to build the most amazing spaceship possible!

As a young builder, Space was without a shadow of a doubt my LEGO theme. Each year the new catalogue was released and my brother and I would quickly turn to the Space page. We would point out the models we wanted, earmarking birthday presents and Christmas gifts in January.

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Space0dactyl

Our free building activities followed in the same vein. Spaceships, rovers, robots and lunar bases were our staples. Where I favoured the idiosyncratic look of science fiction models, which had scant regard for practicality as long as they looked beautiful, my brother focused on engineering challenges and functions. Between the two of us we made good progress in emulating our heroes, the designers of the official LEGO sets. It is with great pride that I remember mastering the tricky art of detailing a Space model with lights, panels and antennae, a task I considered integral to the official sets. I was rewarded when my friends from school volunteered the highest praise: “That could be a real set.”

In many ways when I returned to LEGO building in my late thirties, I picked up where I left off. My aim was to build in the style of the designers of my childhood sets, but now with the skill and artistic vision of an adult. Where before the ultimate goal was to build as well as the designers, now I had the expertise to match their work, but also the freedom to work outside the conventions of toy design. Even the most cursory of scans of my builds reveals an obsessional pursuit of this. How many three-wheeled space rovers can I make, what would a pyramid spaceship look like and how do you build a space elephant?

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Classic Space Caterpillar Rover

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Triangle Shuttle

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Cosmic Pachyderm

What I find fascinating about the Classic Space LEGO theme is how open it is as a design brief. It is more than the use of certain colours in particular combinations, which it is often reduced to. When I see a blue and grey science fiction creation presented online as a Classic Space model, most of the time I’m simply looking at a blue and grey spaceship. Conversely I’ve had to laugh at the pedantry of the community that has informed me I’ve made my models incorrectly based on arbitrary rules divined from a handful of sets. I’ll never forgot the horror some people experienced when I inverted the yellow and black stripes commonly found on early Classic Space sets on my Space Wedge Model. Black and yellow stripes in the right order do not make a Classic Space set.

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Space Wedge

The LEGO designers of the early Space sets certainly didn’t fix hard and fast rules for themselves. New colour combinations were constantly being introduced. In many ways the range portrayed a mismatched oddball collective of scientific space exploration vehicles. Yet, there is a tangible quality shared by them all. I think of it as a post-Star Wars re-imagining of the NASA programme. Taking the clunky technology of the 70s and 80s and mixing it with aspirations of an established lived-in future world as portrayed in the Star Wars films. The result is often quirky in its aesthetic rendering of pragmatic function. Space sets looked as if they had a purpose without being explicit what that function was. A great Space design for me is a model with lots of apparent scientific equipment on display without enforcing what any of it does.

This way of working leaves builders with several different ways of taking the theme forward. Peter Reid and Tim Goddard in their magnificent book LEGO Space took one route. Channeling the sleek spaceship designs of the first wave of Space sets and remodeling them with all the skill of modern building techniques. Importantly they spliced this with the direction science fiction design has moved in the era of digital design. The result is a wonderful alternative world of space exploration. On discovering their work it felt like finding a couple of kids in the next town who had come up with a different, yet equally brilliant space universe to mine.

My own take on Classic Space starts from very different sets though. The twin digger/grabber rover 6880 Surface Explorer, the crazy tower/robot/base 6951 Robot Command Centre and the AT AT imitating walking dinosaur 6940 Alien Moon Stalker sum up my LEGO DNA. It is a world where functional design is pushed beyond use into impracticality for the sake of whimsical design. It’s a way of working I feel great affinity for. When I start to build I tend to come up with an interesting exaggeration, a canopy design that pushes the parts further than they are supposed to go, or something as simple as placing radar dishes at certain points to insinuate a face.   For me these twists make a Space model infinitely cooler than any deadly armed star fighter will ever be.

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Ginger-Bread-Bot

I’m not alone in this approach. My kindred spirits are builders like Crismso Geiger, who makes sequences of creations by reusing small selections of Classic Space pieces, and my sometimes Space competition collaborator David Roberts, who mixes, space, whimsy and engineering functions. Together we seem at odds with the science fiction designs of today remaining resolutely attuned to an eccentric nostalgia for a future that never was.

All of this analysis still hasn’t fully answered my question though, what made space dinosaurs more popular than all my other quirky, inventive and unique Space creations? The missing ingredient is a simple child’s perspective. Where perhaps my other Space creations are over-designed, suffering from a complicating adult perspective that understands composition and design, the dinosaurs were my son’s idea.   Over the summer holiday we spent an afternoon building, and in a throw away statement he said: “Daddy, can you build me a space dinosaur?’ What a fantastic idea I thought! Why didn’t I come up with that?

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Space0saurus (Spine Cells)

Once the idea was set, I had a fresh focus for pushing pieces into new design purposes. Where before I was looking for innovative canopy designs, I was now looking for vintage Space pieces that could stand in for parts of a dinosaur. I looked first of all for the archetypal elements of a dinosaur: what signified each of the classic beasts. For a stegosaurus it had to be the dorsal plates. A flash of inspiration and I realised I could deploy classic angled yellow canopies to achieve this. As I continued to build, I remembered that other toy companies, specifically Zoids, had approached this idea and that it would be good to acknowledge this. As a reference to these great toys I borrowed elements such as the tail pilots. The finished creation took me no more than three hours to make, but despite its immediacy it had that intangible quality, a certain something that just worked.

I repeated the process with my other dinosaurs, looking again for archetypal elements that I could hang the design process on. The cones that were often used as rocket heads in Classic Space would make great triceratops horns. In a similar way, the old Technic gear rails would work as tyrannosaurus rex teeth. These new creations each became favourites on the forums alongside the stegosaurus.

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Tri-Space0tops

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Space0saurus-Rex

With the classic dinosaurs of my childhood exhausted I thought my next build would take an iconic monster from the recently discovered dinosaur fossils. A spinosaurus! Again, I looked for the defining characteristic, in this case the use of transparent yellow bricks to suggest the stretched skin between the spines of the creature.

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Spine0saurus

Now that I’ve found this new way of working, which uses anthropomorphic references to the animal kingdom in space sets, the future is full of new and original opportunities. I’m looking to move away from dinosaurs into new waters, and this time I’m taking inspiration from my daughter. As I continued to build more dinosaurs she interjected: “Daddy, why do you always build dinosaurs? Couldn’t you build a space penguin?” What a great idea! An Ice Planet emperor penguin anyone?

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Ice Planet Penguin (laying Egg-bot)

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Ice Planet Penguin (swim mode)

To see more of my space creations see my Flickr page.

 

 

LEGO and Photography

Two years ago I was given the opportunity of writing for the magazine Bricks Culture; a privilege which continues still.  This was my first article written for the publication, and featured in Issue 1 back in April 2015.  I’m still fond of the piece and its argument that draws the disciplines of building with LEGO and photographing LEGO together.  Print copies of the magazine, which features a whole host of other interesting articles, can be purchased here.

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I will be a Fisherman by Shelly Corbett

Several years ago I was lucky enough to interview Bjarne Tveskov [i], the iconic LEGO designer responsible for the creation of the much-loved Blacktron and Futron space ranges. He was talking to me about the process designers went through to create the alternative models shown on the back of the LEGO boxes during the 1980s. This is what he had to say about the Blacktron Alienator (6876): “Also I like how the box design guys made the footprints on the space surface for the image on the back of the box, even though the model isn’t actually able to lift its feet from the ground!”

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Blacktron Alienator designed by Bjarne Tveskov

What caught my attention in Tveskov’s statement was that LEGO’s merchandising of their product ranges often-exceeded direct representations of the toys. Creating through set design and photography believable worlds, places where for example the Blacktron Alienator really could walk. These photographs encouraged imaginative responses, where the truth, or limitations of the toys were put secondary to the stories, ideas and aspirations they conjured up.

Undoubtedly, the relationship between LEGO and its photographic representation is much more than a point and click affair. Here is a company that understood some 30 years ago that to sell successfully you needed to offer your audience a world that triggers and sustains the imagination. A product has to work as both a toy and as a work of art: as an image that demands and rewards repeated investigation.

The space ranges, such as Blacktron, developed through the dioramas and aptly focused lunar lighting a specific iconography. The yellow sandy dunes, undulating craters and starry sky, looking to all extent and purpose like every six-year-old’s romantic idealisation of outer space. More so than the individual box-art images, the collective catalogue spread photographs, where whole ranges were presented together, fully realised LEGO as a living and breathing environment. Looking back at space imagery from the early 1980s, those simple sets in situ still inspire awe.

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LEGOland Space 1979

The other ranges that LEGO ran at the time were of course subject to the same treatment. Castles were situated in perspective-angled hills so as to exaggerate scale. Pirates exchanged cannon blasts across choppy seas. And possibly my favourite photographed diorama, this magnificent town display replete with Space Shuttle launch, captured an undisclosed Florida cityscape and NASA test site.

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LEGOland Town

Whilst these endeavours were clearly driven by a marketing strategy, one that has to be acknowledged as highly successful during the 1980s and early 1990s, it also challenged the way future generations and returning adult builders would come to interact with LEGO. Even if we remain partially blinded to the fact, all of us now consume LEGO, not only through the process of building LEGO sets or creations of our own, but also through the proliferation of photographic images of LEGO we are exposed to.

I can personally link this shift, where I embraced the LEGO photograph, back to a very specific moment, one I’m sure many fans of LEGO, young or old, will identify with. The six-year old me was tucked up in bed with the new LEGO catalogue. By torchlight, deep under the covers I reviewed, examined and absorbed all those images of the current LEGO ranges. At one level this was driven by a consumer urge. Mentally I selected the big yellow castle as something that had to make it onto the Christmas list, but at another level the idea of possession was far from my mind. Ranges like Fabuland, Scala and the large train sets, which either were beyond financial reach or clearly not aimed at my demographic, garnered an equal focus as the magnificent new space sets.

LEGO realised quite wisely that no child would likely ever own all the sets in its ranges, nor were they likely to want to. So whilst the product instilled an inclination to collect themes or sets, as a totality the product range encouraged selection and choice. And whilst the ownership of actual sets might be limited, the aesthetic engagement with the full scope of possibilities did not have to be so. By taking the time to present its products, through artful photography, it created a secondary free product. Wonderful images which enthralled in their own right.

This investment in the photograph is most clearly seen in LEGO’s support of photographic imagery beyond the obvious merchandising points. Yes, we find some of the best LEGO imagery on box fronts, in catalogues and adverts, but places such as the back of boxes (unlikely to obtain more than a fleeting glance on the shop floor) and the published Ideas books also took extraordinary lengths to produce the highest quality photographs.

Tveskov brings home the point in the same interview I referred to earlier. He describes the alternative builds, and in fact the whole presentation of the reverse of the LEGO boxes, as a place where the designers, box artists and photographers could have fun. For the smaller sets, the possibility of reverse engineering the alternative builds was a real possibility, but not a necessity. On the larger sets, a task only really achievable by the more skilled and experienced builders. As such, the alternative builds were never considered as actual models one would make. Other sets, such as the Technic models included instructions when the alternative was thought of in this manner. Instead the alternative build was always to be considered as an image, as a photograph. Perhaps it is for this reason too, that the quirky impossible presentation of the Alienator, with its duck feet imprints also becomes a secondary image, one for the back of the box.

The idea of consuming LEGO as idea or an image, so as to inspire rather than to be made was most expertly realised in the Ideas books. These publications allowed the LEGO designers free range to work with elements currently available in the company’s sets. The books came with limited instructions for a few of the smaller builds, but ostensibly were glossy photographic catalogues of what you could do if you only had enough bricks. Taking up what the catalogues had introduced through the commercial need to sell, the Ideas books gave the child a selection of mind-expanding marvels that could be achieved in LEGO without subtext. For many of us these might have been our first art books, collections of the most stunning photography. A small chance to aesthetically reflect and expand our building ambitions.

I would argue that once cut loose from the necessity of neat, polished commercial products, the most fully realised examples of some of LEGO’s early genre experiments came to fruition in the photographs of the builds in these books. Compare the sprawling web of sci-fi wonderment presented in the Ideas book, to the space catalogue entries of the same period, and we are immediately struck by a shift in experimentation, complexity and scope.

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Images from the the LEGO Ideas books

Leaving the past behind, it seems clear that LEGO and photography had very quickly found a symbiotic relationship, one which now seems hard to disentangle. What importantly is revealed is that a sophisticated relationship to LEGO is never just about the craft and skill of building. It also includes a desire to express or show something through the process of making, and equally an enjoyment and value in reflecting on a LEGO creation as a realised image. LEGO when photographed fulfils both of these criteria. By distancing itself from its process of creation, the builder is able to identify what they wish to show: and the viewer removed from the context of the bricks, as components that can be dissembled, is able to concentrate on the creation itself.

The understanding of this particular interdisciplinary relationship further helps to refute certain myths about LEGO. Whether it can be an art form or not, and whether the creative or building experience constitutes its most authentic expression.

I have recently written on the question of LEGO’s authenticity[ii] and whether or not it is inextricably linked to creative activity . In this article I challenged the views of the blogger Chris Swan [iii], that were taken up by the BBC journalist Justin Parkinson in his controversial article ‘ Has the imagination disappeared from LEGO?’ [iv]  Swan’s argument hinged on the principle that the authentic condition for LEGO is always found in the moments we experience when building. Once complete, the correct response to a LEGO construction is to dismantle it and begin the creative process once more.

What Swan missed, and which this discussion relating to photography opens, is that the moment following the completion of a build, where the builder’s first impulse is to show what has been built, is as significant as the building experience itself. That joyful moment when the child runs to Mum or Dad, and exclaims “Look! Look what I have made!” Clearly in a creative act, as imperative as the desire to build is the desire to show. And by proxy we accept that there is something to reflect upon, something for an audience to see and feel.

LEGO cannot be perceived of as art if it must remain ideally as Swan argues an exclusively creative act, it must also be a showing, a site for reflection.

The problem for the child is that following the creation of a LEGO model they reach a troubling state of affairs. One we can all recall from our childhood. The need to show what has been made, and the desire to explore a new project, to show something else; both are valid positions, but cannot be mutually sustained. Enter photography to the rescue!

The potential ephemerality of the LEGO build is rescued by the possibility of its presentation as an image. The photography of LEGO allows us to both dismantle that which has been built and continue to show and reflect on what was made. LEGO’s engagement with its audience fostered this understanding at an early age, and I believe presents the possibility of a construction toy becoming an artistic medium shared by a creative community.

Returning once again to personal experience, I can pinpoint the second occasion in which photographs impacted profoundly on my engagement with LEGO. During the summer of 2003 I stumbled through a nostalgic Google search for classic space LEGO into the world of the nascent LEGO fan scene. Suddenly, before my eyes were hundreds of photographs of amazing fan-built spaceships. The expectation of seeing photographs of those old, but still wonderful sets from my childhood was supplanted by the thrill of so many new and fascinating images. The six year-old me had climbed back under the duvet and found a new multi-volume copy of the LEGO Ideas book, one that I had never known existed. To say I was excited was an understatement.

I consider this day, rather than the day I actually started building again, as the end of the so called dark ages, that period of life where you cease to engage with LEGO. I became a lurker on many of the main sharing sites, sporadically dropping in and seeing what new and amazing creations people were building. During this period that lasted some 8 or 9 years, I barely touched an actual LEGO brick or even saw one in the plastic as it were. My engagement with LEGO occurred via the Internet and the photographs I found shared there.

At first the photos I found were of a limited quality, often in low resolution, framed by the domestic clutter of dining room tables, carpets and bed spreads. However, as technology advanced, digital camera resolution increased and broadband Internet connections became commonplace, these photos increased in quantity and quality,

As I followed this growing scene I came more and more to see that photography was transforming what the LEGO experience meant. Rather than a bedroom hobby, an insular building experience, where completed models might be shared with close friends and family, it was transforming into a collective enterprise, where the raison d’être for building was to share what one had made. More and more the projects being completed were not made simply for the thrill of creative building, but as something explicitly to be photographed. Where photography had once rescued the builder from the dilemma, whether to dismantle or not, this question held less and less importance; the photograph was the conclusion of the building process and not the build.

Photographs of LEGO were creating in the words of the French novelist and theorist André Malraux, a ‘museum without walls’, the phrase also being the title of his seminal work on the relationship of photography and the museum[v]. In this book he referred to the way in which a public comes to view and consume the great works of art in the age photography, and how this would in fact alter the art world as a result.

Malraux’s theory begins by noting that in the 19th Century, even the most read and prolific writers, Hugo, Baudelaire and Verlaine, did not have full access to the artistic treasures of the world. Even if they travelled, the paintings of El Greco, Titian and Michelangelo may only be viewed once in a lifetime and then committed to the vagaries of memory. In contrast, through the ability to photograph these works, the archive of paintings, sculptures and monuments is made immediately available to us. No longer do we need a museum with walls to house these works, only our own curatorial imagination, which selects as it wishes works that interest and inspire as required. And in turn each of us imagines our own ideal museum.

When it comes to a new and emerging art form such as LEGO, which has no cultural heritage, no monuments, no churches or museums, the concept of the creation of a museum without walls becomes even more important than it was for the traditional arts.

The LEGO community’s emergence from a shared archival project, in the form of vast online folios of work, marks perhaps one of the first truly democratized art forms. An art where traditions are formed by the sharing and cultural connections of those who make and create the images, and not deep-set cultural institutions, academia, the museum and big business funding. Beginning from a humble origin, a toy that denies no one access based on training or craft, shared by the people’s medium of the camera, is created the unique artistic event that is currently happening on our doorstep.

In a spectacular synchronisation of technologies, these photographs presented within the photo sharing sites and social media applications, gives the individual via like-buttons, shared links and folders, the tools they need to articulate these archives as their ideal museum.

It came as no surprise to me having watched these developments, that when I took up the bricks as a creative medium, from the outset I thought about creating models that would be photographed and shared online. I was intentionally knocking on the door of the museum without walls with my bundle of digital image. And the sense of achievement I felt as I saw my work ‘liked’ and commented upon, taking its place in so many peoples’ ideal museums, explains a great deal about why LEGO as a creative hobby continues to grow.

This is where LEGO’s relationship with photography pushes beyond Malraux’s theory. It is not an archive that we passively engage with. To be a LEGO builder and photographer is to be part of a grand artistic experiment, a shared living breathing museum, which we influence, change and evolve with each new photograph we add to it. The museum ceasing to be just a receptacle for culture, becoming instead a greenhouse, a hothouse environment for creative experiment and growth.

As with all successful interdisciplinary relationships, LEGO’s embracing of photography changes what both art forms can be. LEGO builders recalling those first constructed catalogue vistas started to take on the LEGO box and photographers’ roles as well as the designers’.

We see this happen right across the LEGO community, where photographs are staged and organised to present theatrical and believable worlds. Some seek to replicate in their photos the work of those original box designers, however at the extreme end of the spectrum you find builders like El Barto[vi], who has taken this relationship to grand heights in his ongoing alternative Basttlestar Galactica saga and representations of Homer’s Odyssey. Through the uses of stage lighting, carefully ordered scenes and photo-shopped backgrounds he treats each and everyone of his builds as stills from an ongoing film. This is not simply a way of recording a building process, but the genuine combination of two art forms.

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Other builders, such as Tim Clark [vii], have used the translation of a LEGO build into a photograph as a way of accessing the toolkits available in photo editing software. The result, a further interdisciplinary encounter between illustration and LEGO, as found in images like his stunning City on the Undiri Moon.

 

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Undiri Moon by Tim Clark

The conclusions found in these new hybrid ventures are the inevitable creation of builds that actively exploit photographic structures in order to exist. Forced perspective building being one growing and popular genre of building/photography. Chris Maddison’s [viii] rolling farmland exemplifying what can be achieved when we use the camera to trick the eye.

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Do You Think My Tractor’s Sexy by Chris Maddison

Matt Rowntree’s [ix] recent reproduction of John Carpenter’s memorable film poster for the film The Thing again evidences a build that is completed through its photograph. Built on a glass table, so as to incorporate an iridescent effect, the conceit explores aspects of lighting central to the build that can only truly be seen in its photographic representation.

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The Thing by Matt Rowntree

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Photographing The Thing by Matt Rowntree

Where there is no doubt that photography is changing and expanding the creative possibilities open to LEGO, it equally brings a further levelling effect to the archive. As Malraux noted in his study, photography gave new emphasis to works of art that often went unnoticed in the gallery. Small intricate pieces could be enlarged so as to stand side by side with large frescos, and difficult to view art forms such as tapestries could be better displayed. The photography of LEGO does something similar, allowing smaller and unexpected genres to compete and attain the recognition they deserve against the huge and piece intensive creations, which ordinarily demand attention when physically displayed.

Another of the unexpected results of the ongoing relationship between LEGO and photography comes from the influence it is having on the discipline of photography itself. The scale of LEGO creates a unique subject for the creation of images. When mini figures or recognisable LEGO parts are situated in the world they alter the ratios we ordinarily expect to find. Snow becomes the harshest blizzard, water’s reflective details are magnified and a vista, which for a human might seem everyday and ordinary, becomes sublime when viewed from the perspective of a mini-figures eyes.

The seriousness with which this work is taken has found photographers who focus on LEGO being accepted into the gallery on the merit of this work alone. The recent exhibition at the Brian Ohno Gallery [x] in Seattle collected together some of the best work in this field from talented photographers like Shelly Corbett [xi], Boris Vanrillaer [xii] and Vesa Lehtimäki [xiii].

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In LEGO We Connect exhibition

Even in this briefest of summaries, the way in which LEGO and photography have grown from a relationship founded in the marketing strategies invested in 30-40 years ago, to become the essential presentational medium it is today cannot be denied. So successful has the relationship been it now seems almost impossible to separate the two art forms. LEGO as a community, as an artwork, as an archive and a site for experiment has been benefited form its correspondence with photography. So much so, that when we talk about LEGO as a cultural phenomenon we really ought to say ‘LEGO and photography’.

Endnotes

[i] David Alexander Smith, ‘Interview with Bjarne Tveskov’ MOCpages (22 December 2012) http://www.mocpages.com/moc.php/349429 (accessed 13 March 2015).

[ii] David Alexander Smith, ‘Authentic/Inauthentic LEGO or what’s the right way to build?’

[iii] Chris Swan, ‘The Perils of Modern LEGO’ Chris Swan’s Weblog (26 November 2014) http://blog.thestateofme.com/2013/01/01/the-perils-of-modern-LEGO/ (accessed 13 March 2015).

[iv] Justin Parkinson, ‘Has the imagination disappeared from LEGO?’ BBC (26 November 2014) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-29992974 (accessed 13 March 2015).

[V] André Malraux, Museum Without Walls, Martin, Secker & Warburg, London (1967).

[vi] See El Barto’s Flickr stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/52907196@N07/.

[vii] See Tim Clark’s Flickr stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/timLEGO/.

[viii] See Chris Maddison’s Flickr stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/cmaddison/.

[ix] See matt RowntRee’s Flickr stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/104851154@N02/

[x] In LEGO, We Connect, Brian Ohno Gallery, Seattle, March 2015.

[xi] See Shelly Corbett’s bio: http://www.bryanohno.com/artists/vanrillaer/index.ht.

[xii] See Boris Vanrillaer’s bio: http://www.bryanohno.com/artists/vanrillaer/index.ht.

[xiii] See Vesa Lehtimäki’s bio: http://www.bryanohno.com/artists/lehtimaki/index.html.